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Basketmakers share their unique talents
White oak baskets in various stages of construction are shared by artist Sue Williams at a recent session. She and Barbara Kucharski are a team from the Tennessee Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program.

The artistry of making white oak baskets has been a long tradition in Warren and neighboring Cannon County. In fact, many baskets and chairs were made by families as a means of survival during the Depression. According to historians, the items were traded to shopkeepers for necessities, while in turn the owners sold the treasures in larger cities for a profit. 
Master basketmaker Sue Williams and apprentice Brenda Kucharski are part of the Tennessee Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program. It is presented by the Tennessee Arts Commission’s Folklife Program to pass down rare and endangered traditional art forms and skills.
“They are the most dedicated, hardworking ladies you will ever meet,” said Dana Everts-Boehm, Tennessee Arts Commission folklife program assistant. “They are both star performers with the mission to save the art form.”
Williams got interested in white oak basketmaking approximately 40 years ago, when there were not a lot of folks making them. She has been retired from the work force about seven years, after years of working for Powermatic and the education system in accounting and computers.
“I just decided I wanted to learn,” said Williams. “I enjoy creating the baskets because each one is different with no two having the exact same shape.”
She learned the art from legendary Cannon County basketmakers Estel and Gertie Youngblood, and Mary Jane Prater. She estimates it takes 75-100 hours to make a basket after the materials have been organized. Williams has sharpened her skills over the years, and is currently working with talented basketmaker Kucharski who resides in Spring City.
She is tutoring Kucharski in how to select and break down a white oak pole and to prepare materials needed for the basket. Kucharski has also learned the unique Cannon County Tie, which is a way to secure the basket handle, from Williams.
“Each area of the country does a different type of tie to secure the handle to the rim,” said Williams. “This particular tie started in Cannon County, which is the White Oak Capital. There used to be a lot of basketmakers down there, but not so much anymore.”
With assistances from Williams’ husband, James, they spend much time securing the white oak trees, and preparing them for breaking down. The process includes cutting it down and coming up with a long pole that is then cut in halves, then fourths and then eighths.
When asked why use the white oak tree, Williams says it’s a hard process to explain, but the variety works best in basketmaking. Weavers (strips used in the body of the basket) can be pulled off by the growth ring of the tree. They have to choose younger trees, preferably one 5-6 feet tall with no branches.
“Older basket weavers say to always choose a tree from the north side of the mountain or hill, as it will be stronger,” said Williams. “I don’t know if that is true or not, but I keep it in mind.”
There are no local basketmaking classes currently planned, but hopefully she can offer some in the future at the Cannon County Arts Center. She will be teaching classes at John Campbell Folk School in North Carolina in October.
“I would love to get some young people involved in this art, but it is hard work and takes a lot of time,” said Williams. “It is hard work, but very rewarding, and I have hope for the future.”